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Facebook Tells All: How The Biggest Social Network Relies on Data

It’s not every day the biggest social network in the world lets their users take a look under the hood. But that’s exactly what happened last Tuesday at the PRSA 2014 International Conference, when Facebook’s Mike Buckley (VP, global business communications) gave a talk entitled Big Data and Analytics: Why The Math Matters, providing actionable insights for the PR community and showing off the mega-company’s successes, vulnerabilities and decision-making in the process.

“The only way that we can possibly service the 1.3 billion people who use Facebook is through the use of data,” Buckley said at the onset of his presentation. While our audiences aren’t nearly as large as the Facebook community his team administers to, his advice was no less applicable. Here are the takeaways that resonated.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” A big theme emerging in our industry right now is wondering what it takes for PR to get a “fully equal seat at the table,” as Buckley puts it. We want to be treated like our advertising and marketing brethren—bigger budgets, tied to ROI, more respect—but traditionally we haven’t used data to the fullest. That anti-math attitude has to change. The PR industry needs to measure so our executives, clients and stakeholders take notice of our recommendations.

Ground your decisions with data. News outlets and social media gave Facebook a lot of flack for its $1 billion purchase of Instagram. Facebook didn’t care. “The reason we ignored [these stories] is because we analyzed and respected the math,” Buckley said. Instagram had impressive user-stickiness and “all of their curves looked great in relation to Facebook, so we made that purchase,” Buckley shared. Besides, every time Facebook makes any type of move or product change sentiment goes down and generally rebounds. Having a baseline for sentiment, the data told Facebook not to overreact. Brands should take heed and let the actual data—not the estimation of volume or sentiment—tell them when to worry.

Get ahead of the data cycle. We’re at a beautiful time in our industry’s history. We have enough data to engage in predictive analytics—that is, knowing what will happen in the future to a high degree of accuracy. If you can understand your data cycle, and if you know what actions shorten or extend your data cycle, you are uniquely positioned to alter or brace for outcomes.

Know what drives your company. Buckley said the biggest lever of Facebook’s reputation has nothing to do with news, but is entirely related to product. Facebook’s single best day of sentiment, according to Buckley, was when they launched the “A Look Back” feature, compiling users’ milestones and memories into 62-second videos. If you know that your product drives reputation more than your news, you should focus on improving and showing off your product.

Data isn’t everything. “Data is never, ever, ever going to completely replace human judgment.” Buckley described one day when metrics didn’t matter—the story of John Berlin, whose 21-year-old son Jesse died unexpectedly, and who petitioned Facebook to make an “A Look Back” video honoring his son despite the network’s policy of shutting down accounts of the deceased. Berlin’s plea went viral and Facebook made an exception to unlock Jesse’s account so his grief-stricken father could see his son’s video. “Data was never going to ease John’s pain,” said Buckley. Data is supposed to help your organization—so don’t let it impede your ability to make flexible, personable, impactful decisions.

There isn’t a shortcut. When someone in the audience jokingly asked, “How can I trick the Facebook algorithm?” Buckley exclaimed, “You can not!” Instead he reminded us: “Great content still does well.” Fun, educational, interesting videos are the way to organically reach more people.


Not sure where to start with PR measurement, predictive analytics and harnessing Big Data? Check out Cision’s free Measurement Week Recap, filled with full-length videos, downloadable tip sheets and bonus content to help you measure the effectiveness of your campaigns. 

About Teresa Dankowski

Teresa Dankowski is a content marketing manager at Cision and covers best practices in marketing, PR and social media. She enjoys printmaking, wine, TV and dominating at rec league softball.

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